Legal Writing Mishaps You Should Avoid Like the Plague

Legal Writing Mishaps You Should Avoid Like the PlaguePlease welcome back attorney Christen Morgan to to talk about some important reminders about legal writing!

God bless my 1L legal writing professor. Although I am now two years removed from law school and five years removed from my first semester of legal writing, I maintain this statement with the utmost conviction. This professor deserves special blessings as she has had to endure reviewing hundreds of memos and briefs proposed as exemplary writing but fraught with blatant error. She has also spent countless hours in her work day trying to explain to each student (me included) about why their writing is in fact not exemplary. Finally, she has on numerous occasions had to maintain the “patience of Job,” as she did her very best to take charge of the debate each student assumed was necessary to prove that they were in fact writing experts after their first three weeks of law school.

First year legal writing teachers around the globe deserve this recognition because of how difficult a first year writing course can be. As human beings we tend to guard any form of creativity with absolute pride and legal writing is no different. I recall going into my first year writing course thinking that I had it all set. In undergrad I received nothing less than an A for any writing assignment, therefore I assumed that law school would be no different. Imagine my shock when I received the red splattered comments on my first legal memo draft. I immediately assumed that my professor was unclear and scheduled a meeting to argue my point. It honestly took some time for me to begin listening to her and although I ended the course with a good score, I believe it could have been better had I begun applying her feedback early on.

As I reflect on my legal writing experience in law school I recognize that there are a few mishaps that I can attribute both to psychological denial and also a lack of skills. I hope that by flagging some of these mishaps you may be able to recognize them early on and improve on your legal writing from the start.

1. Allowing your Pride to Keep you in Denial

I think the first major writing mishap can occur well before our pen even touches the paper. As I mentioned above, it’s completely natural to attach our pride to any writing assignment. Therefore, we can sometimes take feedback on our writing very personally and disregard it because we feel attacked. The first step to improving your writing could be to start by breaking down your wall of pride and taking feedback from your professor constructively and applying it to making improvements. Don’t waste time by allowing your pride to overpower constructive help.

2. Taking Forever to Get to the Point or Evading a Point Completely

Once you’ve broken down your walls and you’re ready to begin writing, don’t take forever to get to your point or evade making a point completely by using lengthy verbose statements as a distraction. If you’re writing a legal document, you are likely putting this together after some hefty research, so I can understand the desire to squeeze all this research into each paragraph or in the alternative fill your paragraph with conclusory statements because of the limited research on the issue at hand. However, this serves no benefit. Instead, legal writing can be a lot easier to digest if we place our conclusion up front, in what my 2L advanced legal writing professor calls a container. Defending this conclusion throughout the paragraph with legal rules and then restating your conclusion in a close out container. Following this writing template should help with making your writing more succinct and easier to digest.

3. Applying the Same Writing Style to Every Legal Document

When it comes to legal writing, one style does not fit all. Therefore, avoid applying the same writing style to every legal document. The main misconception that I had when I started law school was that if I applied the same writing style to legal documents that I used for my undergrad research papers, then I would be in the clear. I could not have been more wrong. Before you begin to pen any legal document, you must first consider the type of legal document you’re drafting and also your audience. I remember when I completed my first memo draft, many of my professor’s comments were based on how argumentative/conclusory my points were. I was completely oblivious to the fact that a memo is more of an advisory document which serves to educate on the law that may apply to a specific issue. Once I understood the objective nature of a memo, I later struggled to apply the persuasive/argumentative style required on my second semester brief. However, recognizing the differences of these writing documents and the purpose behind them should make it easier to improve your writing style.

4. Writing Before “Hitting the Loop” on your Research

Finally, another writing mishap is to begin writing before “hitting the loop” on your research. During my 1L writing course, I recall that a lot of my writing frustration stemmed from how unbelievably long it took to complete research. Therefore, I oftentimes allowed my impatience to take ,center stage and I began to pen my draft with the very first legal conclusion I could piece together. I quickly learned that this was not beneficial when my legal writing professor recognizing that I missed major points, asked if I had “hit the loop” on my research. “Hitting the loop,” means that when completing extensive research, you will at some point reach a stage where your research begins proposing the same cases, opinions, articles and overall support. It will usually take a while before getting to this point, but when you get there, it’s a good indicator that you have done enough research and you can begin writing.

Writing prematurely before hitting the loop can be risky as you may end up wasting a lot of time running with one point that will likely get shot down with the next binding opinion you come across.

Legal writing can certainly be a tough cookie to crack, however, I hope that avoiding the above mishaps can help you to be well on your way.


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About Christen Morgan

Christen Morgan graduated magna cum laude from the University of Tampa where she received her B.S. in Criminology. She earned her J.D. from Emory Law School where she competed and served as an executive board member for the Emory Law Moot Court Society. Christen also served as a student representative for LexisNexis and also as a mentor for several 1L students offering them advice and a variety of resources to help them through their law school journey.

Christen previously practiced as a Foreclosure Attorney for a Real Estate law firm but has since then transitioned into a Real Estate Specialist role at a wireless infrastructure company.

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